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  • Writer's pictureAngelo Sotto

Student Perspectives: Experiential Learning in Anatomy, with Yoga!

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

An exciting and important area of research in anatomical education is examining the efficacy of novel teaching techniques - including modes of experiential learning where students learn by doing, such as employing physical movement when teaching musculoskeletal anatomy.

During her time as a graduate student in Anatomical Sciences at Queen’s University, our ATLAS Research Lab PI, Dr. Bentley, was an avid yogi with a practice that regularly included both Ashtanga and Bikram styles of yoga. Having completed her undergraduate training in kinesiology, the conceptual link between musculoskeletal anatomy and physical movement was clear to her: “I already knew that the hamstrings muscle group at the back of the thigh crossed two joints: the hip joint and knee joint. So when my yoga instructor would guide the class to slightly bend their knees in order to attain forward flexion in their hips - that inherently made sense to me. However, my conversations with my yoga classmates quickly revealed that this knowledge was not held by others. This was an opportunity for me, as a young graduate student, to teach my fellow community members about their bodies in a way that would have been applicable and meaningful for them. So I taught my yoga classmates anatomy, and it became the capstone project of my master’s degree!”

An image depicting the Bakasana (crow pose, or crane pose) and associated muscle groups. Yoga can help students develop a deeper understanding of movement, and the role that different muscles can play in certain asanas. Image taken from Kaminoff L, and Matthews A. (2021). Yoga Anatomy. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics.

Dr. Bentley’s capstone project investigated the use of yoga asanas, or yoga poses, in teaching musculoskeletal anatomy of the lower limb [1]. In addition, the applicability of anatomical knowledge in the practice of yoga was also examined. In this study, Dr. Bentley designed and implemented learning sessions for the teaching of lower limb musculoskeletal anatomy to community members who practice yoga (yogis) and those with general interests in yoga. These learning sessions were designed with two key educational theories in consideration: Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (to help participants connect new knowledge to their yoga practice), and Bruner’s Spiral Learning Theory (to facilitate general curriculum design) [2,3].

The learning sessions included didactic instruction (via PowerPoint presentations, handouts, and oral explanations), practical explorations (via bone specimens and prosected lower limbs), and an experiential learning opportunity (through the use of several yoga asanas) of the musculoskeletal anatomy of the lower limb. The goals of the research were to see if participants of the learning session enjoyed it, learned from it, and were able to apply any new knowledge to their yoga practice. Excitingly, 76.5% of all participants found that the anatomical information they learned was applicable to the asanas practiced during the session, and that 96.2% believed that basic anatomical information would be useful for beginner yogis.

Dr. Bentley's learning sessions incorporated many different modes of instruction, one of which being didactic instruction with PowerPoint presentations (pictured above). The relationship between structure and function of muscles in the lower limb was demonstrated through the use of several yoga asanas.

Integration of such a form of experiential learning in anatomy courses, and its efficacy in enhancing student learning, warrants further investigation. Alex Sadler, a nursing student at the University of Toronto who practices yoga once a week, explained that she sees the benefit in incorporating physical movement when teaching and learning musculoskeletal anatomy: “I’m a big fan of experiential learning. [...] I think yoga can give students an overall idea of how the body moves and locations of certain bones and muscles, which can aid in understanding and [retention of] anatomy”.

The reverse also seemed to be true - many of the yogis who participated in our learning sessions found value in learning anatomy for their yoga practice: “Excellent job… this is a great course for yogis and a wonderful way to apply anatomical knowledge” [1]. Norkey Lhamu, an alumnus of the University of Toronto who practices yoga several times a week, also expressed that anatomy helps inform yoga practices: “[My background in anatomy] helps me understand the movements of yoga practice. It can help you understand how your body moves and what muscles play a part in that movement. I find it most helpful when I have an injury or when my muscles are sore - knowledge of anatomy can aid in figuring out what muscles need more work and stretching”. Alex shared similar sentiments: “Many times, the yoga instructor will explain the benefits of a certain pose on your body, or how to get into a pose by naming certain body parts. [...] It’s easier for me to understand the reasons for yoga poses because I have anatomy knowledge”. As such, it is possible that students learning anatomy would benefit from such experiential modes of learning, in the same way that practitioners of movement-based activities (like yogis, swimmers, dancers, athletes, for example) would benefit from basic knowledge of musculoskeletal anatomy. Dr. Bentley has been working with a collaborative team of researchers including Dr. Nicolette Richardson (York University), Chris DeZorzi (University of Guelph), and Dr. Scott Thomas (University of Toronto) investigating that very question. [spoiler: students studying the movement-based disciplines benefit greatly from incorporating physical movements directly alongside anatomical education]

To enhance not only student learning, but also student enjoyment in anatomy courses, it is imperative to try and test different teaching methods. When asked if they would have liked to see experiential modes of learning in their undergraduate anatomy courses, Norkey expressed how it can greatly complement didactic lectures: “Yes - yoga and other forms of physical activity could help visual learners pick up the mechanics of movement more effectively. [...] As for visceral organs and structures, traditional modes may be easier to implement,” she said. Alex further elaborated on Norkey’s last point on traditional modes being better suited for certain concepts in anatomy: “But there is a lot more [to learn] like types of tissues and specifics of such that I don’t think [experiential modes] can teach. So the specifics would have to be taught [didactically]”.

Ultimately, the goal is to design courses that teach anatomy in a way that is effective to the many different types of learners in the student population to not only enhance retention of concepts, but also to make learning more enjoyable.

The referenced publication authored by Dr. Bentley, “Yoga Asanas as an Effective Form of Experiential Learning When Teaching Musculoskeletal Anatomy of the Lower Limb”, is available for view here.

  1. Bentley DC, Pang SC. 2012. Yoga asanas as an effective form of experiential learning when teaching musculoskeletal anatomy of the lower limb. Anatomical Sciences Education. 5(5):281-6.

  2. Kolb DA, Fry R. 1975. Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. In: Cooper CL (Editor). Theories of Group Process. 1st Ed. London, UK: John Wiley & Sons. p 33–57.

  3. Bruner JS. 1967. Towards a Theory of Instruction. 1st Ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. 176 p.



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